Britain’s EU exit has already left a mark. And the April plebiscite on a new Constitution will be decisive for Chile. While both contexts differ, the former calls to mind that outcomes don’t always obey expectations.
To the surprise and shock of politicians and observers much of England and Wales voted in 2017 to take the United Kingdom out of the EU. Although then-Prime Minister David Cameron played to anti-EU sentiment to keep the Tory fringes in check and extract concessions from Brussels, he appreciated the EU as amplifier of the UK’s global reach and as a rich free-trade area. The sovereignty ceded to Brussels didn’t touch state prerogatives like war and taxation anyway, so the rest was freedom of speech.
But the referendum turned things upside down. At a 72% turnout, 51.89% (17.4 million) voted leave against 48.11% (16.1 million) remain – while almost 13 million eligible voters didn’t bother (18 million weren’t registered). Had they voted, the UK could have saved precious time and resources. This group could have split evenly, but more realistically would have swung in one direction, widening the gap in the end result. And a decisive result would have forestalled a debate on why Remainers should shoulder the Brexit pain Leave voters see as fair price to pay. It would also have avoided questions about the referendum’s execution and about what the result means.
‘The People’ in Chile
Similar to pre-referendum UK, the outcome of Chile’s plebiscite seems clear right now. Polls that most citizens still support a change of the socio-economic order, starting with a new Magna Carta. So far, it looks like ‘Yo Apruebo’ (I approve) will win. But opinions in the polls aren’t votes, especially in Chile, where barely 40% of eligible voters participate in elections.
The ‘Yo Rechazo’ (I reject) movement quickly recognized this potential and started its campaign weeks ago. And a poll by research firm Cadem suggests it can convince voters, although ‘Yo Apruebo’ remains miles ahead. In early February, 67% of respondents supported a new Constitution versus 27% rejecting it. While still decisive, 5% went from ‘approve’ to ‘reject’ – within just one week and the Reject campaign still operating in low-level mode. Much more can change over the next 10 weeks when the political climate heats up and media coverage intensifies.
The recent swing is mostly a result of neo-Pinochetist politicians defending the Constitution of their hero more openly, and liberal figures arguing for reform instead of replacement, so the economic floor is maintained. But red-baiting plays a role, too. Not just in Chile the right doesn’t argue over ideas anymore but delegitimizes opponents and initiatives contrary to its philosophy by stoking fear of communist takeovers and economic collapse.
Sebastián Piñera won his second term using this approach and although he toned it down after taking office, red-baiting remains the right’s approach to decisive issues. Right-wing voters, moreover, have lost the ability to make sense of the world through analytical lenses other than red-baiting. Communist traitors and left-wing terrorists are always lurking somewhere. For this part of the population, the plebiscite is not about building a just society; it’s about life or socialism. And this will create a momentum that won’t disappear on April 27.
To this adds that plebiscites don’t necessarily reflect a popular will. Rather, they express the ability of one side to mobilize more supporters than the other at a particular moment. Considering the polls, proponents of a new Constitution could become indifferent and stay home assuming their preference will win anyway. Indifference already derailed former president Michelle Bachelet’s attempt to create a new Constitution. When she offered the option to the public during her second term, nobody bothered to participate, so the process fizzled out. Fear tactics, political bickering, and complacency will surely become part of Chile’s plebiscite – and potentially major contributors to diminishing interest, just as in the UK.
This could lead to a narrow result, which is more worrying than any other. If the losing side opposes the sweeping consequences of a result barely half the voting population chose, Chile is in for sustained upheaval.
Leadership could navigate the country through such a scenario. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, for example, deftly negotiated and implemented the FARC peace deal despite narrow rejection at the polls. Though the deal’s implementation remains flawed, it has taken pressure off communities and will serve as blueprint for a better country.
Unfortunately, Chile has no such leader. The president prefers to indulge conspiracy theories instead of analysis and his approval ratings, fluctuating around the single-digits, wouldn’t give him political capital, even if he were an able leader. But it’s not just him. Political figures of all hues have repeatedly made comments that showed they barely understand the society they supposedly represent. This situation will persist, since Chile’s system cultivates political incest rather than independent and creative leadership.
No country can wish to fall into a similarly protracted scenario the UK confronted after the referendum. Absent leadership and despite the poll numbers, an unprecedented number of voters needs to be mobilized to minimize this risk in Chile. Brexit is a bad model.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).